By the time Memorial Day weekend arrived in late May, the weather in Jeromeville had become quite summer-like. The bike ride from Wellington Hall to the South Residential Area only took five minutes, but I was doing that bike ride in 88-degree sunshine, so I was already starting to sweat by the time I got back to my dorm room. It was the Friday before a three-day weekend, and I was drained from a long week of classes. I unlocked my door and turned on the air conditioning. Cool air began blowing into the room. I took off my shoes and lay face down on the mattress, dozing off for about an hour.
I spent a couple hours writing emails and catching up on Usenet groups, and reading for fun. Shortly before six o’clock, I walked to the dining commons. I saw Taylor, Pete, Charlie, Ramon, Liz, Caroline, and Sarah at a table. Next to Charlie was an empty seat with a half-empty glass of water on the table next to it. I could not tell if anyone was sitting there.
“May I join you?” I asked. “Is that seat taken?”
“Go ahead,” Charlie replied. “There’s always room for hydrochloric acid.”
“Wait, what?” I asked. Charlie laughed. “That was random,” I said.
“How’s it goin’?” Taylor asked.
“I’m good,” I replied. “It’s a three-day weekend, and they turned the AC back on.”
“I know!” Sarah said. “It feels so nice!”
“So, Greg, what are you doing this summer?” Taylor continued. “Will you be back home in Plumdale?”
“Yeah,” I answered.
“Working? Doing anything like that?”
“My mom told me the other day she found a job for me. One of my brother’s friends, his mom works at this small bookstore. I guess it’s just her and the owner working there. She wants to cut her hours for the summer to be around more when her son isn’t in school. So Mom told her that I was going to be home for the summer, and I could use a part-time job.”
“And do you want to do this?”
“I wish Mom would have asked me first, although she did say I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to. But I’m not going to be doing anything else all summer, I’ll be getting paid for it, and it’s a job I don’t have to go find and interview for. So I’m ok with it.”
“Yeah,” Taylor replied.
“Good point,” Pete said.
I really would have preferred for Mom to have consulted me first before volunteering me to a commitment of several hours per day. However, the thought of having to go find a job was terrifying, and this way I had something lined up without having to look for it, as I had told Taylor and Pete. Besides, working in a bookstore sounded fun. Maybe I could sample the merchandise and read on slow days, and maybe I would get an employee discount.
We all went downstairs to check the mail after dinner. When I saw an envelope with handwriting on it, I felt my heart race. I had written that letter almost two weeks ago, not knowing what would happen, not even knowing for sure whom I was writing to. How long did it take for a letter to travel from one end of the USA to the other anyway? And after she got it, she would need time to reply, and then her letter would have to travel back across the country to Jeromeville. Would she write back right away? Maybe I sent it too early. She was still in the middle of finals when I wrote; she hadn’t moved home yet. Maybe her parents got it and interrogated her about why she was getting mail from this strange boy in another state. Maybe her parents threw it away.
I removed the letter from the mailbox and looked at the envelope. I breathed a sigh of relief when I read the return address. It was from Carol Allen in Plumdale. This was not the letter I was nervous about. This was from someone I had known for years, who had already written me once this year.
I noticed that my friends were moving toward the Help Window, which meant that someone had to pick up a package too big to fit in the mailbox. I walked over to where they were. “Someone got a package?” I asked.
“It’s for Caroline,” Sarah said. “You got a letter from someone?”
“It’s from Mrs. Allen. She was my English teacher in both 7th and 8th grade.”
“And she writes to you in college? That’s so sweet!”
“I know. This is the second time she has written. My mom ran into her somewhere back home a few months ago, and she told Mom to tell me to write to her.”
“She sounds nice.”
“She is. I was in her class when I was going through a really rough time. I was at a new school in the middle of 7th grade, and I had had a lot of problems at my other school before that. She really made me feel welcome and accepted. A lot of the teachers at my old school acted like they didn’t want to deal with me. And I know that ‘a lot’ is two words, because Mrs. Allen always made a big deal of it whenever someone would write ‘alot’ as one word.”
Sarah laughed. “That’s funny!”
“I knew ‘a lot’ was two words before Mrs. Allen’s class, but I still remember her making a big deal of it.”
“It’s funny how some teachers stay in your memory forever. Like I had this math teacher who would always make the dumbest jokes. He’d say, ‘What’s 4y minus 3y,’ and you’d answer ‘y,’ and he’d say ‘because I asked you.’”
I chuckled. “That’s great. And then there are some teachers who you remember for all the wrong reasons. Like Mr. Milton, my history teacher from junior year. He made fun of Catholics and Republicans all the time.”
“That’s not nice.”
“I still remember all these random things I learned about history from his class, though, so he did something well, but I didn’t think he was very nice.”
I opened the letter from Mrs. Allen when I got back to my room.
May 24, 1995
Sorry it has taken so long to write back, but I’ve been busy. You know how it is. I’m sure you’re busy too. Jeromeville is on trimesters, if I remember right, so you should still be in your dorm room. When is the school year over? Our last day is June 8.
I’m going to get a new computer and get online soon. Mr. Coburn got us America Online at school, and he has been showing me how it works. Once I figure out how to set it up, I’ll send you an e-mail. It looks like there are all kinds of interesting things you can do.
I went to the Titans game yesterday. I got a partial season package again, so I have a ticket to 20 games. I have a much better seat this year because a lot of people didn’t renew. I knew that would happen after the strike. I’m so happy the strike is over! I missed the Titans. I thought of you because the University of Jeromeville band played the pre-game show.
I hope everything is well with you. Take care of yourself and good luck with finals!
P.S. I think it will be OK for you to use my first name now.
The postscript at the end made me laugh. Everyone knows that one does not address a teacher by his or her first name. Mrs. Allen said it was okay to call her Carol, but I just would never be able to bring myself to do that. It was okay now, because I was an adult, but it still sounded wrong. Mrs. Allen would always be Mrs. Allen to me. That was just how things worked when addressing a teacher, even years or decades after being in that teacher’s class.
I did not know that the University of Jeromeville Band had played a pre-game show at a Titans game. I had grown up watching Bay City Titans baseball, traveling up there with my family about three or four times a year to attend games in person. But I had not been keeping up with the Titans, or baseball in general, this year. The end of the previous season had been canceled because of a players’ strike. There was no World Series that year. Furthermore, Matt Williams, the Titans’ third baseman, had hit 43 home runs by the time the strike began in early August, possibly putting him in position to set a new record for home runs in one season. The record at the time was 61. But the season was canceled, he had no chance to hit any more home runs, and in two more seasons with the Titans and seven with other teams, he never reached this level of power hitting prowess again. The strike had continued on into the 1995 season but was settled early in the season, and baseball had finally resumed at the end of April, a few weeks later than the usual start of the season. I did get interested in baseball again eventually… but that is another story for another time.
The next morning, I got out of bed around nine. That was sleeping in for me, the best I could do. I studied and did homework for about two hours, then decided to reward myself with a bike ride. I rode north to the Coventry Greenbelts, where I had ridden last week, and discovered a bike path skirting the northern edge of the city. Riding west, the path passed fenced backyards on the left and some kind of drainage or irrigation canal to the right, with open fields on the other side. The path turned south, with ends of culs-de-sac connecting to the path, before zigzagging west again and then south one more time. At this point, the drainage canal entered the Jeromeville city limits, with a neighborhood of large luxury homes visible on the other side of the canal. I was not sure where this neighborhood was or what it connected to. I saw a pedestrian and bicycle bridge cross the canal into that neighborhood, but I did not go that way.
The path turned south along a park with a playground, basketball courts, and an open grass area. I rode past a sculpture of dominoes. The park then narrowed, so that fences of backyards came close to the path on either side, much like the other paths I had discovered last week. After making several more turns, and not being sure of exactly which direction I was going now, the path narrowed to a small sidewalk, next to a parking lot. I appeared to be in the back of a large apartment complex. I wondered which one; I probably had heard of it, from when I was looking through that apartment guide trying to find a place to live next year.
Suddenly, as I got closer to the actual buildings, riding through the parking lot, I realized that I knew exactly where I was. Not only had I heard of this apartment complex, but I had looked at these apartments. I had even signed a lease here. This was Las Casas Apartments on Alvarez Avenue, and I was looking right at my home for next year, apartment 124. This was convenient; my apartment for next year was right next to the Greenbelts. I would have a lot of opportunities to explore Jeromeville on my bike from my new apartment.
When I got back to campus, I checked my mail before going back up to my room. All the anxious excitement I felt yesterday when I checked the mail came back when I saw the letter that I had been expecting the day before. The return address said “M. Boyle,” with a box number and rural route in a town I had never heard of, called Muncy, Pennsylvania. My name and address had been handwritten on the envelope, in black ballpoint pen.
I started to hide the letter under my shirt, but then I remembered that I was all sweaty from having ridden my bike in warm weather for an hour. I slid the letter in my front pocket and walked back to the building with half of the envelope sticking out. I made sure that no writing was showing on the part sticking out. Something still felt weird about having this letter, and I did not want to have to talk to anyone about it.
I made it back to my room without seeing anyone and began reading.
May 23, 1995
Hello! It’s nice to hear from you, and I hope this finds you well. I’m good, except there’s a storm here. It’s raining pretty hard, with lightning.
Good luck on finals! I got my grades a few days ago. I ended up with two Bs, two Cs, and a D. Not as good as I wanted. I’ll have to work harder next semester.
I’ve been bored and lonely much of the time since coming back home. When I was at school, I was used to having everything within walking distance, but we live out in the country so everything is a 15 minute drive away. And since I don’t have a car, I don’t get away from home that much. Most of my friends from college live far away, and my friends from home are either still in high school or have jobs. I looked for a job, but I haven’t found anything yet. The bookstore you told me about sounds like it’ll be fun for you. Mostly I just want to get a job so I can get out of the house. But I need the money too or else I might not be able to go back next semester. I know how you feel about not looking forward to summer, being away from your friends. I thought I would have a job by now, not stuck at home all the time.
I’ve pretty much given up on finding a boyfriend. The only place I go is church and the guys there are either not interested or too old for me. There are some dance clubs, but I don’t have a car so I can’t go to them.
Well, I hope I’m not some 37 yr. old pervert! Just the idea makes me sick. Would your mom like to see my drivers license or school ID? Anyway, write me back when you can I know you have finals coming up so I’ll wait until after that to expect something. I’ll write maybe another letter before then. ☺
When I wrote to Molly, I said that I was a little nervous, because my mother was fond of reminding me that all these girls I was meeting online were probably 37-year-old perverts named Chuck. Molly was the first person I met on the Internet whom I had any sort of offline contact with. Apparently Molly did not find the image of Chuck as funny as I had.
Molly was my age, a freshman at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania. Molly had already finished the school year, because Lock Haven was on a semester schedule, both starting and ending earlier in the year than Jeromeville with its quarter schedule. (Jeromeville quarters were technically trimesters; Mrs. Allen had correctly called them trimesters in her letter). Molly moved back home, where she would not have access to email, so in her last email to me, she had given me her address.
And she actually wrote back. I now had proof that someone I met on the Internet actually existed in real life. Of course, technically she could have been lying about her age or gender or any number of things, but there was a real person behind those messages who took the time to write back. Hopefully this summer I would be able to look forward to getting letters in the mail. And hopefully she was not really Chuck.
I spent most of Sunday studying, although I did make it to church Sunday morning. In the late afternoon, when I finished everything I had hoped to get done, I got on my usual IRC chat channel. Kim, a girl from Florida I had been talking to for a few months, was online, so I messaged her.
Happygirlkim: Hi Greg! How are you?
gjd76: doing well, it’s been a good weekend. it’s been warm here, i like that
Happygirlkim: I bet! I’m done with the school year, back home in Ft Lauderdale, but I’ll be working at a summer camp for kids for six weeks, I leave on June 16
gjd76: that’ll be fun, that’s the weekend i’ll be moving home
Happygirlkim: Yay! Any big plans for the summer?
gjd76: moving back home and working in a bookstore. my mom knows someone there who got me the job
Happygirlkim: That’ll be fun! Will you be hanging out a lot with your friends back home?
gjd76: i’m not sure. i lost touch with a lot of them when i came here, and i didn’t see them often anyway when i was back home. i don’t even know for sure who will be around for the summer.
Happygirlkim: I wish I lived closer to you! I’d hang out with you! 😉
gjd76: that would be fun!
Happygirlkim: I think you’d like my friends! You could come to the beach with us, we’d build a bonfire and stay up late just talking…
Happygirlkim: Maybe someday!
gjd76: hey, random thought, can i call you?
I typed that last line quickly and pressed Enter before I could talk myself out of it. It was a sudden fleeting thought that passed through my mind, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Now that I had gotten a letter from Molly, it seemed less scary to try to communicate with these girls from the Internet in other ways.
Happygirlkim: Sure! Did you mean right now?
gjd76: sure, it’s sunday afternoon and long distance calls cost less on the weekend
gjd76: great! let me get off here, i’ll call you in just a minute
I logged out and disconnected. Back in 1995, people connected to the Internet through telephone lines, so being logged in meant that I could neither send nor receive calls. As soon as the computer was disconnected, I dialed Kim’s number, and just like when I had asked her if I could call, I pressed the buttons quickly, so I would not be able to talk myself out of completing the call.
“Hello?” a female-sounding voice said on the other end of the call.
“Is Kim there?” I asked.
“This is Kim.”
“Hi. It’s Greg.”
“Hi!” Kim paused. “It’s good to finally hear your voice.”
“So why don’t you see your friends back home very often?”
“Where I live, it’s kind of semi-rural and spread out. And I didn’t really do much except go to school. I didn’t really have friends at all until the middle of high school.”
“You didn’t have a best friend in childhood or anything?”
“Everyone was mean to me.”
“I’m sorry. And you said you didn’t have a girlfriend, right?”
“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve had a lot of crushes on girls who were either out of my league or didn’t like me back. One of my crushes from high school was named Kim too.”
“Girls named Kim are the best!”
“I know.” I chuckled.
“You haven’t met anyone in college? Didn’t you tell me you were going to a movie with some girls recently?”
“One of them, we’ve had two classes together, I feel like we’re just going to be friends. The other one, she’s really cute, and she’s been nice to me all year, but she’s a sophomore, I don’t know if she’d be interested in a younger guy who doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”
“You never know. It wouldn’t hurt to ask. You’re such a sweetie. I bet all the girls like you, and you don’t even know it!”
“I don’t know how to ask a girl out.”
“You just go up to her and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go get something to eat?’ or ‘Hey, do you want to go see a movie?’ or whatever. You can do this. I believe in you.”
“I don’t know. What if she already has a boyfriend? Then I’ll look like an idiot.”
“But what if she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but you never ask her? You never know unless you try.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I really didn’t know. Kim made it sound so simple, but it was so confusing and scary. I had a sudden thought, something I had to know. I took a deep breath and asked, “If you lived nearby, and I asked you out, would you go out with me?”
“Yes, I would!”
“Thank you. I wish we could.”
Kim and I talked for about another 20 minutes, just about life in general. She told me more about her friends and about her summer job at the camp. I told her about my classes, exploring the greenbelts, and my upcoming finals. I hoped we would have more conversations like this.
I have had other female friends from the Internet besides Kim telling me that I should have no trouble meeting a girl. Things did not work that way in my world. It seemed like every girl I was ever interested in always seemed to have a boyfriend already, and without having ever had the experience of knowing that a girl liked me, I had no idea how to know if a girl liked me, and no reason to believe it would ever happen to me. It was so easy to talk to girls I met on the Internet. Maybe I would have to go to Fort Lauderdale to get a girlfriend. Or Muncy, Pennsylvania.
Today, when kids go away to college, they have a much easier time staying in touch with their friends back home. Today’s college students have text messages and social media and video chat and technologies that we only dreamed of twenty-five years ago. I have found that I tend to remember most of my friends back home not staying in touch once I moved away, but when I really think about it, that is not entirely true. Melissa and Renee and Rachel had been keeping in touch regularly. Janet Bordeaux, the girl whose mother and my mother often gossiped, had written me twice. Jessica Halloran had sent me a postcard from Guatemala. And now Mrs. Allen had written me twice. I did eventually lose touch with all of those people until social media came along, but it did not happen as suddenly as I tend to remember. I think I also remember people not writing me because I focus on the fact that I had two new female friends and crushes who did not keep in touch. Interestingly enough, I did not make much of an attempt to stay in touch with guys; I was just more comfortable communicating with girls, because boys were always so mean to me in elementary school.
Mrs. Allen and I have been in touch semi-regularly ever since then. She did eventually get her email set up. She is now in her early 70s, retired from teaching. A few years ago, the band AC/DC was touring, and she took her grandchildren to see them when they played Bay City. I can only hope to be that badass at that age.
I lost touch with Kim sometime during sophomore year. She just got busy with life, I guess; we never had any kind of falling out. But Molly and I stayed friends for a long time, well into our 30s. In my late 20s, I did a lot of traveling around the USA, and I saw Molly in person twice when my travels brought me to her part of the country. We also never had any kind of falling out; we just grew apart as life got in the way. The last time I heard from her was in 2009, and by then she was married and expecting her first child. Being a parent definitely changes one’s priorities.
Someone asked me once, as an icebreaker question, if I could have anything I wanted, without cost being an obstacle, what would it be? I said I wanted a private jet with an unlimited supply of fuel, because I had friends all over the world that I wished I could spend time with. It all started during that school year, my freshman year at UJ, meeting girls on the Internet. I still do have friends from all over the world. I don’t meet many people on the Internet anymore, because I gave up chat rooms in 2007, but I still have friends all over the world who I used to know in person that I wish I could visit, as well as chat room friends who I met before 2007 who stayed in touch. And in three weeks, I would be back home in Plumdale, away from all my new Jeromeville friends. Hopefully at least some of them would write to me. And I would not be gone forever; I still had at least three more years at UJ.